“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” the philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote. One imagines that he’d have thought to write poetry in German would be doubly so. But that is exactly what Paul Celan did. His fate was to be a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who wrote German poetry—and the fraught tensions inherent in this defined his life and work.
Writing in German, Paul Celan was a Jewish poet who made postwar Germany confront the past it was so impatient to forget. A large amount of his work concerns the Holocaust, and he insisted that his poems were “messages.” The message of his most famous poem, “Death Fugue” (“Todesfuge”), written in both his and the Nazis’ native tongue, is stark. With directness rare in his poetry, Celan blames Germany for the genocide of his people:
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling
he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he orders us strike up and play for the dance
“Death is a master from Germany,” he wrote, juxtaposing the Jewish people embodied by the name Shulamith with Marguerite, symbol of their oppressors. The poem ends:
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland
we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink
this Death is a master from Germany his eye it is blue
he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
a man lives in the house your golden haired Marguerite
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and daydreams
Death is a master from Germany
your golden hair Marguerite
your ashen hair Shulamith
“Death Fugue” was Celan’s first published poem, and it remains his most famous, often studied in German classrooms and anthologized around the world. Celan wrote the poem in German in 1944 or 1945 and it was first published, in Romanian translation, in 1947. The poem, critic J.M. Coetzee argues, makes “two huge implicit claims about what poetry in our time is, or should be, capable of.” Its first assertion is that language can confront any subject, however unspeakable. Its second is that the truth about Germany’s past could be told in German—a language used for such lies and barbarity and corrupted so grossly by Nazism at the very time Celan wrote the poem.
Celan would later explain his views on language in a talk given as he accepted a German literature prize in 1958. “There remained in the midst of the losses this one thing: language. It, the language, remained, not lost, yes in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened; yet it passed through this happening. Passed through and could come to light again, ‘enriched’ by all this.”
With its searing evocation of Jewish prisoners forced by the Nazis to play music at their own executions, Celan uses explicit imagery in “Death Fugue” alongside poetic allusion; in his later poems, however, he made more indirect references, which gained him the reputation of a difficult poet for readers. But one central difficulty with Celan’s writing was a problem he himself faced: that he wrote in German. Although a polyglot who spoke Romanian, French, Yiddish, Hebrew and Yiddish, his mother tongue was German, the language of those who killed his parents.
Paul Celan was born Paul Antschel in Czernowitz in 1920. After the breakup of Austria-Hungary after World War I, the area became part of Romania. Antschel was spelled Ancel in Romanian—an anagram of which, Celan, he chose as a nom de plume. Celan later described his hometown as a place where people and books used to live. He was the son of German-speaking Jews—his father, a builder, was a passionate Zionist while his mother, to whom he was very close, was a huge Germanophile who introduced him to German literature like Rilke. After he completed his schooling partially in Romanian and part in German, Celan went to France for medical school in 1938. He was back home in Czernowitz when in 1939 the region became part of the Soviet Union as part of the Nazi-Soviet pact. There was no way he was able to return to France.
About two years after his pact with Stalin, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and the Celans and the other Jews of Czernowitz were driven into a ghetto. Celan was not home when his parents were taken away to labor camps at which his father died of typhus and his mother of a bullet to the neck when she became too weak to work. Celan survived the war doing forced labor in Romania until liberated by the Red Army in 1944. But could one ever truly survive the murder of one’s parents?
After the war, having spent some time in Bucharest, Celan settled in Paris. There he passed university exams and won a job as lecturer in German literature at the École Normale Supérieur, one of France’s most prestigious universities. He started to build a life, and much to the chagrin of her aristocratic family, married a French Catholic named Gisèle de Lestrange. His professional life took off, too. On its publication his second book of poetry, “Poppy and Memory” (Mohn und Gedaechtnis), received widespread acclaim and established Celan as among the most important postwar poets.
However Celan’s success was soon challenged. Claire Goll, the widow of an author he had been translating, accused him of plagiarizing her late husband, the poet Yvan Goll. Although the allegations were unfounded—and arguably crazy—Celan took them very personally. He had long suffered from depression and saw the accusations as part of a larger conspiracy against him. Writing to his friend the author Nelly Sachs (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966), Celan saw his suffering as part of the persecution of the Jews. “What must we Jews yet endure?” he asked.
Celan found it increasingly difficult to endure Claire Goll’s accusations, which would eventually lead to a breakdown. When he went to a psychiatric clinic for treatment, he received electroshock therapy. The joy he felt at Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War was some succor, however. He penned a poem celebrating the Jewish State’s gaining of Jerusalem, which reads:
Just think: your
this piece of
up into life.
“So many Jews, only Jews, and not in a ghetto,” Celan commented with awe on visiting Israel for the first time in 1969. When it came time to return to Paris, he considered that perhaps he had made a mistake in choosing to remain in Europe after the war. The following year, he took his own life—drowning himself in the Seine.
Initially a German poet whose fate it was to be a Jew, Paul Celan became a Jewish poet who was fated to write in German. Although he was feted in his lifetime, it proved too much to bear. For as he wrote:
bears witness for the